Nicaragua: Approaching an Inflection Point?

By Kenneth M. Coleman*

Protesters burn a large pink metal tree

On Saturday, April 21, 2018, Nicaraguan protesters burned an “Árbol de la Vida” (Tree of Life), one of several monumental statues that are considered representations of President Daniel Ortega’s government. / Jan Martínez Ahrens / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The street protests that wracked Nicaragua last week may or may not recede after President Daniel Ortega backed off a controversial increase in social security taxes, but the damage to his image of invincibility will linger and could turn out to be a watershed in his and his wife’s grand plan for one-party rule.  Ortega mobilized the police, which have teamed up with young thugs over the years to intimidate those who protest government policies, to repress what started last week as peaceful protests against the increased taxes but evolved into a challenge of the authoritarian nature of the regime.  The government closed four television stations that were covering the street protests; shock troops from his party’s Juventud Sandinista burned down a radio station in León; and journalists faced harassment, one having been killed.  Local press estimates 20-30 deaths, with surely well over a hundred injured.

The street protesters were not alone in their struggle.  The Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) and American Chamber of Commerce in Nicaragua (AMCHAM) – which for years had become silent accomplices in the efforts of Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, to consolidate their power – called for solidarity with the popular protests.  For the first time in the current Ortega era (2007-2018), they openly called for street marches to resume today.  More importantly, they used hard language – condemning the use of fuerzas de choque by the government – and issued a set of conditions before a “dialogue” with the government can begin.  Specifically, they demanded that students, university communities, and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church be included in any dialogue, surrendering their previous role as privileged interlocutor with the government.  (The Catholic Church provided respite and support – both moral and physical – to student protesters.)

Mass movements can start from little sparks and grow into society-wide convulsions.  The outcome of these new confrontations with the Ortega-Murillo government cannot be foreseen at this point, but the parallels with other governments on their last legs are striking.  The use of excessive force by Mexican police in 1968 triggered massive street protests that directly questioned the legitimacy of a seemingly well-established Mexican one-party state – legitimacy that was ultimately resurrected only by opening the system to genuinely democratic competition.  While the process took two decades, it did lead to an opposition victory in the 1990 presidential election.  In Nicaragua, the fall of Anastasio Somoza in 1979 accelerated when the business community eventually abandoned his dictatorship.

  •  Ortega’s party, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), for many years has been able to isolate, contain, and discredit those abandoning it, including a former Sandinista Vice President and former members of its National Directorate. Grumbling within the party is already growing louder because of a succession plan bringing Rosario Murillo to power upon the illness or death of Ortega in a manner that far exceeds her status as vice president.  Local press reports indicate that one police commander and her unit of 50 officers have been jailed due to their unwillingness to confront and repress protesters in the streets.  The excessive application of force against peaceful protesters last week and, potentially, in coming days might lead to a more serious rupture, making last week’s events a potential inflection point for Nicaragua – with potentially dire consequences for Ortega and Murillo’s political ambitions.

April 23, 2018

* Kenneth M. Coleman is a political scientist at the Association of American Universities who directed the 2014 AmericasBarometer national survey in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua’s “Great Canal” Draws Opposition

By Fulton Armstrong

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Protestors opposing the Chinese-Nicaraguan canal confront police / Jorge Mejía Peralta / Flickr / Creative Commons

Although questions continue to swirl around whether the Chinese-Nicaraguan canal – which its main investor called the “most important [project] in the history of humanity” – will be built or not, its opponents are taking it all very seriously.  A CID-Gallup poll in January showed that 41 percent of Nicaraguans interviewed strongly support the project, while another 21 percent and 17 percent back it somewhat and a little, respectively.  But another poll by the same firm suggested ambivalence:  asked if they supported the National Assembly vote giving the Chinese firm leading the project, HKND, a concession for the 278-km right of way for up to 100 years, some 39 percent of respondents said no.  Some political voices are growing more sharply opposed as well.  The powerful business group COSEP, for example, has gone from agnosticism about the project to a position of open disapproval.

Groups concerned about the project’s impact on the environment and rural residents have already held protests involving up to several thousand participants, and – despite the government’s promise that the canal will bring prosperity throughout the country – organizing efforts appear unlikely to fade.  Skepticism about HKND and the government’s commitment to protecting the environment, fueled by their off-the-cuff dismissal of concerns, is so deep that even a balanced comprehensive impact study by the British Environmental Resources Management, due next month, may fail to calm nerves.  Environmentalists cite studies warning that dredging Lake Nicaragua from its current depth of nine meters to the 27 meters necessary for cargo ships will stir up many layers of toxic materials, with catastrophic consequences for marine life and surrounding agricultural areas.  Other groups are rallying behind the 29,000 residents who are to be evicted from properties along the canal route.  Demonstrations have turned violent, with protestors injured by tear gas and rubber bullets.  Graffiti and banners demanding “fuera chinos” are common.

In the hemisphere’s second poorest country, the promise of growth spurred by the $40-50 billion project is still a powerful card in the government’s hand.  Many skeptics still wonder, however, if the whole scheme is a ruse to fleece the Chinese investors, who’ll bring in a couple billion dollars before realizing that the project will get bogged down in Nicaraguan political quicksand.  But opposition to the canal goes far beyond the usual Managua political game of fighting over corruption dollars and obstructing each other’s priorities.  President Ortega’s endorsement of the canal contradicts his own statements years ago that he wouldn’t compromise the lake’s eco-system “for all the gold in the world.”  According to The Guardian newspaper, the dredging will move enough silt to bury the entire island of Manhattan up to the 21st floor of the Empire State Building – which no one is prepared to deny will have serious environmental implications.  China’s Three Gorges Dam, completed five years ago, displaced 1.2 million inhabitants – proportionally twice as many Nicaraguans displaced by the canal – but Nicaragua’s ability to resettle them, give them jobs, and suppress their dissent is small compared to China’s.  The project may not be the greatest in the history of mankind as HKND claims, but it may provoke a crisis as great as any in Nicaragua.  For starters, if COSEP’s opposition persists, it threatens to unravel the modus vivendi under which Daniel Ortega has stayed in power, and could portend much deeper tensions.

March 5, 2015

Click here to see our previous article about the canal.

July 19th Anniversary and the New Nicaragua

By Rose Spalding*

Photo credit: Globovisión / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Photo credit: Globovisión / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Daniel Ortega’s political rebirth has produced a remarkable partnership with the Nicaraguan business sector.  Thirty-five years ago, when he and the Nicaraguan revolutionaries ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza, a U.S. ally known for corruption and human rights abuses, they clashed with the business sector, the Catholic Church leadership, and a heterogeneous band of counterrevolutionaries armed and financed by the Reagan administration.  Ortega lost elections in 1990 but made a remarkable return to power in 2007, ushering in the “second phase of the Sandinista revolution.”  Unlike during his first term, he undertook to collaborate with COSEP, the Nicaraguan association of business chambers, and gave its members, perhaps more than any other group, regular access to high-level officials and a palpable voice in shaping legislation.  According to José Adán Aguerri, the current president of COSEP, 77 out of 81 of the Ortega government’s economic laws have been produced in dialogue with the business association.  These involve wide-ranging negotiations on minimum wage increases, tax reform, housing development, social security expansion, investment incentives, and other issues.

This partnership has contributed to economic growth and direct foreign investment.  The World Bank reports Nicaragua’s economic growth was 5 percent in 2012 and 4.6 percent in 2013, compared to 2.6 percent and 2.4 percent for the Latin American region as a whole.  According to CEPAL, foreign investment in Nicaragua reached $849 million in 2013, a level that was second only to the $968 million reported for 2011.  Nicaragua’s investment promotion agency, ProNicaragua, documents strong investment in tourism, agribusiness, textiles and outsourcing services.  The extractive sector is also growing rapidly.  Responding to strong commodity prices and a cordial reception in Nicaragua, Canadian gold mining company B2Gold recently announced a planned investment of $289 million to expand its operations in La Libertad.  Nicaraguan investors have developed new initiatives, including a major tourism project orchestrated by Carlos Pellas, the country’s richest man.  The relationship has benefited from the ALBA agreement Ortega signed with Venezuela President Hugo Chávez in 2007.  Venezuela assistance has totaled $3.4 billion in loans, donations and investments in the 2008-2013 period.  These funds regularized Nicaragua’s precarious energy supply and subsidized transportation, housing, microcredit and public sector wages, providing a general economic stimulus from which elites also benefitted.  Announcements of a projected $40 billion investment in an interoceanic canal reinforce the image of a new development era in Nicaragua.

The business-government relationship reflects mutual accommodation by Ortega and business leaders.  Nicaragua lost several decades of economic growth during the 1980s and the “contra” war, so upon his return to power Ortega put a premium on promoting growth, tread lightly on issues of tax reform, and eagerly pursued foreign investment.  He met repeatedly in closed sessions with business leaders and called for a “grand alliance” of government, business and workers to combat poverty, promote investment and create jobs.  A formal consultation mechanism brought together leaders from COSEP and the government, such as Bayardo Arce and Paul Oquist, for regular policy discussions.  Offering a stable economic environment and generous investment incentives, a non-conflictual labor force with the lowest wages in the region, a relatively low crime rate, and receptivity to business initiatives, Ortega won over business allies.  The business interests of current and former Sandinista leaders, some affiliated with COSEP, reinforced the collaboration and helped convince a new generation of business leaders to put aside traditional hostility and preoccupation with injuries of the revolutionary 80s.  They accepted the government’s legitimacy and bolstered its domestic and international credibility.  Enthusiastic about the growth of the Nicaraguan economy, economic elites also downplayed lingering questions about deficits in democratic institutionality and accountability.  But the heightened concentration of political power under Ortega and the weakness of other state institutions mean that economic rules are vulnerable to shifting political winds, and questions remain whether this development approach will resolve the problem of widespread poverty.  Even as the government-business relationship warms and the economy grows, these social and political concerns continue to bedevil the country.   

*Dr. Spalding is a professor of political science at DePaul University.

Nicaragua’s Canal: Great Leap (of Faith) Forward?

By CLALS Staff

Mike and Karen / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Mike and Karen / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The Nicaraguan government and a Chinese telecom tycoon took a big step on Monday toward the country’s long-held dream of having its own canal, but their prediction of supertanker traffic starting as soon as 2020 seems a bit far-fetched.  The project will cost $40 billion and, according to government officials, will create 50,000 jobs immediately, 1 million jobs over the life of the project, and will help lift another 400,000 people out of poverty.  President Daniel Ortega’s supporters claim the economy – currently projected to grow at 4.5 percent a year until 2020 without the project – will grow as much as 15 percent a year with it. The Chinese company, HKND, will enjoy a 100-year lease on the canal, with 1 percent of it reverting back to Nicaragua each year.  The proposed route for the canal is 278 kilometers long – about three times longer than the Panama Canal – and will be deep and wide enough to handle ships much larger than the “New Panamax” vessels.  Officials say the canal would “complement” the Panama waterway, which they say will be overcapacity even after its current expansion, and will save shippers some 800 miles on their way to the U.S. east coast.

Opposition from some politicians and environmentalists has been strong.  According to media reports, Nicaragua’s Supreme Council for Private Enterprise (COSEP) and other business organizations are generally positive but skeptical, with one leader calling Monday’s press conference “just an initial flow of information.”  Congressman Eliseo Núñez of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), however, has been widely quoted as calling Monday’s announcement a “propaganda game” and blamed the media for generating “false hopes for the Nicaraguan people.”  Former Vice President Sergio Ramírez says that handing over national territory for development is a violation of the country’s sovereignty, and other critics claim the project violates 32 provisions of the Constitution.  Concerns about damage to Lake Nicaragua, an important source of fresh water that is already polluted, remain. Chinese investor Wang Jing told the press that avoiding environmentally sensitive areas was a major factor in determining the route, and he has promised that a full environmental impact study will be conducted before construction starts.  Opponents of the project doubt he will make the report public.

Ortega’s statement last year that a Nicaraguan canal “will bring wellbeing, prosperity, and happiness to the Nicaraguan people” may well be right – if the project gets off the ground and so many jobs are created.  However romantic that vision is, construction is still far from certain to begin this December, as claimed, or even within the next year or so.  Wang says that he has lined up “first-class investors,” but none has been identified yet.  In addition, criticism of his business record – opponents say his telecom company is poorly run – has hurt his credibility. And accusations that he’s a stalking horse for the Chinese government, which he says has had “no involvement,” will be difficult to dispel in view of Beijing’s other interests in the region and in shipping.  Equally troubling, as the ongoing expansion in Panama has shown, the shadow that corruption and inefficiency cast over any major project tempers optimism and argues against premature celebration.